If ever there was a banner year for thrash metal, that year was 1986. After Metallica’s Kill ‘Em All debut brought the frantic new genre to people’s attention in 1983, it felt like something was brewing. Festering. Growing in strength and potency. And then the whole thing exploded, ripping the faces of all and sundry. In 1986, you suddenly couldn’t move for amazing thrash records. You’d walk down the street and they’d leap at your head, hungry for brains.
Most metal fans back then didn’t realise how spoilt they were, or how this 12-month period would mark a pinnacle in extreme music. Three decades on, though, many of the albums in this list have yet to be surpassed, even by the artists who recorded them. These searing releases are essential listening for anyone accustomed to sterile Pro Tools production jobs and generally play-it-safe approaches to metal. This stuff is unclean, both sonically and morally. So perch yourself on top of the wardrobe, then dive like it’s 1986!
Dark Angel – Darkness Descends
The LA caffeine metallers’ second album is still one of the most imposingly weighty thrash albums ever: a punishing blizzard of black distortion. It’s pretty much non-stop breakneck thrashing from the opening title-track to the scorching closer Perish In Flames, only really pausing to adopt an epic gallop during Black Prophecies. The guitars are twin buzzsaws, while Gene Hoglan’s drumming knocks yer block off. The real beauty of this album, however, lies in its sheer nastiness – a thickly mean-spirited vein runs through its entirety, and never more so than on the wonderful Merciless Death, which was picked for inclusion on seminal 1987 compilation Speed Kills III. Happily, Dark Angel are planning a new album. Will it see a return to Darkness Descends’ more basic, brutal approach? We shall see.
Exumer – Possessed By Fire
There’s always been something about German metallers that makes so many of them extraordinarily good at thrash. In fact, German thrash practically became a subgenre all by itself, thanks to Teutonic titans like Kreator, Destruction and these young upstarts. Their debut album Possessed By Fire starts with the classic oh-so-innocent-but-portentous chanting intro so common in thrash circles, before letting rip with the kind of drilling guitars that are guaranteed to make any fan of extreme music grin from ear to ear. While the sound quality of thrash records was still variable in 1986, this one benefits from wonderful heaviness and clarity, thanks to veteran-to-be producer Harris Johns. While the band’s musical Slayer influence made itself known – especially on the excellent Fallen Saint – they had their own style, overall. This was partly down to Mem Von Stein’s unique, ragged vocals, but also to Ray Mensch’s talent for startling riffs, such as the massive chugger that opens A Mortal In Black. This album is way too much fun, and unlike some bands, Exumer are as great as ever today. Check out their new Metal Blade album The Raging Tides for proof.
Angel Dust – Into The Dark Past
The most obscure album on this list, Into The Dark Past was the Dortmund terrors’ killer debut. They specialised in twinning memorable melodies with enormous riffs and high speed, which was good news for anyone lucky enough to stumble upon their little cult. Songs like Gambler and Legions Of Destruction (listen to the way those guitars build up at the start!) remain astonishing to this day. The band followed this classic with 1988’s even-more-obscure and similarly great To Dust You Will Decay, before evolving into more of a power/progressive metal combo and seemingly disbanding. Happily, Into The Dark Past and To Dust You Will Decay were re-issued by No Remorse on January 19 2016, with bonus tracks! Aficionados of thrash’s more tuneful side shouldn’t hesitate to pick these up.
Slayer – Reign In Blood
Oh yes indeed, you knew damn well that Reign In Blood would make this list. And if it had been omitted, you would have rightly jumped on Twitter to accuse us of madness. The fact remains that if aliens landed on Earth and somewhat implausibly demanded to know what thrash metal was, we’d play them this album. Thirty years have passed and no-one has recorded a more definitive lesson in violence. You could write a whole book, trying to pinpoint exactly how Slayer’s great work in the first half of the ‘80s somehow whipped up into the perfect storm of Reign In Blood, where each track’s worth of raging, controlled chaos slams straight into the next. My suspicion is that mood-mastering producer Rick Rubin somehow knew how to bring out the best (or worst) in Tom Araya and co. But enough theorising: let’s play the fucker again!
Kreator – Pleasure To Kill
It was once pointed out that drummer Ventor’s work at the start of opening track Ripping Corpse sounds like an old woman falling down the stairs. It’s true that snare-drum production may not be one of Pleasure To Kill’s real strengths, but sacrifice our spleens to Satan if the album as a whole isn’t one of thrash’s enduring delights. Taking a similarly huge progressive leap to the one which led from Hell Awaits to Reign In Blood, Mille Petrozza and his not-so-merry men blew their 1985 debut Endless Pain out of water with this mind-bogglingly savage collection. The guitar tone scythes incessantly through your brain. And if this were a top 10 of all-time finest thrash songs, full-stop, then the blitzing title-track would surely figure. That is all.
Megadeth – Peace Sells… But Who’s Buying?
Okay, so it may not match anything else on this list in terms of tempo, but Megadeth never needed to play fast in order to achieve intensity and Peace Sells… is a behemoth of the genre. No doubt still fired up by getting sacked from Metallica, Dave Mustaine launches an astonishing display of twisted rifferama, the songs’ truly unique feel mirroring the tone set by artist Ed Repka’s gorgeous and timeless cover. There’s never been a song like Wake Up Dead, before or since. As Trivium’s Corey Beaulieu recently noted on this very site, The Conjuring alone contains more incredible riffs than most bands manage in a career, while Black Friday nails Megadeth’s thrash credentials to the mast, being a restlessly riffy tale of bloody slaughter. One of the band’s finest and most overlooked tracks, My Last Words, brings the whole experience to a superbly incendiary close after just eight tracks. No more are required.
Destruction – Eternal Devastation
Oh dear god, will you please listen to that guitar tone? An incredibly crunchy and treble-heavy fuzz-fuck, it’s never been achieved again since, not even on a Destruction album. Thrash guitar hero Mike Sifringer certainly takes advantage of this awesome sound, delivering a bewildering array of downright amazing riffs, each playing their part across seven songs. The opening Curse The Gods sets the high standard, while the grinding Life Without Sense establishes its status as an eternal mainstay in Destruction’s live set, distinguished by frontman Schmier’s unmistakable rasp. United By Hatred and Eternal Ban ignite aural fireworks, delivering speed and style by the truckload. By the time the hurtling Confused Mind closes the album, you’ll have its namesake, in a good way. Even the instrumental Upcoming Devastation is a doozy, and that almost never happens.
Nuclear Assault – Game Over
Nuclear Assault were one of those bands who actually benefitted from a shambolically chaotic approach. Onstage, they were a wave of distorted madness from which it was difficult to discern much clarity, but you loved it anyway. Likewise, this debut album might technically be the least accomplished of these ten in terms of sound. The guitar sound is quite thin, but Nuclear Assault make up for that with sheer energy and a truly filthy attack underpinned by Dan Lilker’s sludgy bass. Add John Connelly’s one-of-a-kind throaty howl and you very much have a band like no other. Their well-balanced hardcore and metal influences lead to a set of songs which can be less than a minute long (Hang The Pope) or as long as seven minutes (Brain Death). A radioactive delight.
Possessed – Beyond The Gates
The San Francisco mob’s second album is an anomaly in the history of extreme metal. Why? Because it saw them evolve from the death metal of their wonderful Seven Churches debut, into the thrash metal heard here. Bassist Jeff Becerra’s vocals are as brilliantly ghastly as ever, but the riffing style has become more staccato, while the production is way more dry. It’s an oddly treble-laden sound on first listen, but ultimately lends this album real character, along with a pervasively weird and coldly evil atmosphere. The original vinyl release had a fold-out sleeve revealing some tremendous artwork. Buy a CD or a download now, though, and you’ll get the even-cleaner-sounding 1987 mini album Eyes Of Horror bundled in with it. What a Baphomet Bonus!
Metallica – Master Of Puppets
This landmark record took Metallica to the next level of success, without compromising their attack in any way. These eight legendary tracks are incredibly consistent, whether we’re talking the hell-heavy title-track, the militaristic march of Disposable Heroes or Leper Messiah’s pug-ugly stomp. While the album might be slower, song for song, than its two predecessors, it very much guns for quality over quantity. No doubt about it: Battery and Damage Inc are two of the most awe-inspiringly creative thrash metal songs ever laid to rest. Play these tracks today and they’ll more than hold their ground against anything and anybody. It’s as if Metallica jumped years ahead of their peers, set the thrash bar incredibly high with avant-garde guitar acrobatics, then made their excuses and left the genre. The ultimate mic-drop.
Six more highlights from 1986…
Onslaught – The Force
Flotsam & Jetsam – Doomsday For The Deceiver
Mortal Sin – Mayhemic Destruction
Sepultura – Morbid Visions
Sacrifice – Torment In Fire
Sodom – Obsessed By Cruelty